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Book #40: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

What were you doing when you were 23?

Me? I was flailing around out west, burning gas and running up credit card debt, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

Carson McCullers? She was writing a literary masterpiece that is considered by most critics to be one of the top novels of the 20th Century. Man, we were such slackers at 23.

While she was writing, McCullers came up with a perfect title for this novel. You couldn’t describe these characters any more accurately than by saying “The heart is a lonely hunter.”

Though the title might sound like a cheesy romance novel, at least that’s what I thought initially, the book is actually appropriately named.

These are lonely, lonely people—crammed together in small-town Georgia. If ever there was a character-driven novel, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is it.

They are all searching for something, some type of hope or fulfillment, and looking for it in other people. In the end, the novel shows that if all of your hope and security rests in another person, you’ll eventually get let down.

This isn’t necessarily a forward moving, point a to point b plot-driven novel. The book has plot, yes, but it’s really more of a study of five or six characters and their internal struggles—of which they have many.

So I think the best way to dig into this book, and to give you an idea of what it’s all about, is to go through the main characters.

John Singer: Mr. Singer is a deaf mute who becomes a god-like figure to the other main characters in the novel. They all gravitate toward him, projecting their wants and needs and insecurities. He’s basically a sounding board, a troubled man who, to them, seems deeply interested in their lives, simply because he can’t tell them how crazy they are. Singer has an obsession, possibly romantic, with an unhealthy, slightly crazy deaf mute guy, and that is eventually his undoing.

Dr. Copeland: A small-time African-American doctor who treats other African-Americans in this small town. He’s a tortured, angry man, upset about the way his race has been treated and eager to “mobilize the masses” based on Communist principles. His anger and indignation are mostly hot air, as he never really acts upon his principles.

Mick Kelly: She’s an awkward, tall, gangly 13-year-old girl who reminds me a little of Scout Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird. She dreams of being a musician, and she has a crush on John Singer. With a poor family, she’s left to take care of her younger siblings. I love this passage that sums up Mick’s state of mind, but it could also represent any of the characters:

Mick frowned and rubbed her fist hard across her forehead. That was the way things were. It was like she was mad all the time. Not how a kid gets mad quick so that soon it is all over–but in another way. Only there was nothing to be mad at. Unless the store. But the store hadn’t asked her to take the job. So there was nothing to be mad at. It was like she was cheated. Only nobody cheated her. So there was nobody to take it out on. However, just the same she had that feeling. Cheated.

Jake Blount: The crazy, obese, alcoholic Communist guy who will literally shout his opinions to anyone who listens. Definitely the most annoying and preachy character in the book. To his credit, though, he takes a job at a local fair and tries to make a living. Even as an addict, he has a sense of responsibility.

Biff Brannon: He owns the New York Café, a small, grimey dinner that is a hangout for the locals, including the main characters mentioned above. Biff is a sad soul, a widower, who is one of the few characters not obsessed with Singer—instead, he’s got a bit of Humbert Humbert streak in him as he’s obsessed with Mick. Fortunately, he leaves those feelings undisclosed.

As you can probably guess from the title, the reoccurring theme here is loneliness and desperation. Even for the youngest of the bunch, Mick Kelly, there’s a sense of hopelessness. You feel as if she’s being sucked into a culture and a way of life that she can’t get out of.

Carson McCullers. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Her dreams of being a musician in a great symphony grow dimmer as her family’s financial situation worsens. At 14, she takes a job at Woolworth’s to help make money—and you get the sense that this is just the way it is.

As I mentioned last week, the novel reminds me of Native Son, in a bad way. Two of the characters, Blount and Copeland, are too preachy. In my meager opinion, McCullers crosses the line with these characters.

I didn’t get the feeling, in some cases, that the characters were talking. I felt more like it was McCullers talking. And that’s never good.

That said, her writing is lively. Most of the characters have a southern dialect that is just right—enough to let you know where they’re from without seeming comical ( i.e. Gone With The Wind).

McCullers’ strength, more than her writing, is her ability to build a world of characters which you grow to care about. She really develops all of five of these main characters, and even some secondary players.

For a guy who leans more to plot-driven novels, even I appreciated this one. She’s also unbelievable at scattering “sentence bombs” throughout the text. That will keep you on your toes.

One last thought: I’m not sure why, but The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird in some ways.

It’s definitely a darker, more somber book, but just the general feel of the time and place and the culture—and even Mick Kelly reminded me a little of a slightly older Scout Finch.

Since The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter was published 20 years prior to TKAM, maybe it’s the other way around. But you get my point: I see some similarities.

In all, great book. It’s bleak, but so is every other novel on this list. The novel is light on plot but heavy on character development. If you’re cool with that, you’ll probably enjoy The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.”

The Meaning: The title is self-explanatory once you read the book. All of these characters are lonely and searching for something—mainly in other people. The idea being that if you put all your hope and security in one person, you’re eventually going to be let down.

Highlights: Fully developed, lively characters. These are some of the most well-crafted characters I’ve encountered. Carson McCullers was brilliant at creating characters and a world you care about.

Lowlights: On the flip side of the developed characters is the light plot. Typically, this would bother me, but I actually enjoyed the book, despite the fact that “not much was going on.”

Memorable Line: “The most fatal thing a man can do is try to stand alone.” -Dr. Copeland

Final Thoughts: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is a memorable novel. I’m not entirely sure how to rank it. I love these characters and the world Carson McCullers created for them to live in. It’s just a beautiful book.

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26 Comments Post a comment
  1. Though I haven’t quite finished my re-read of the novel yet, I think you did a great job on the summary – and without giving away the plot, sparse as it is. Mick is reminiscent of Scout from TKAMB, even though Scout is about 4 years younger. But in truth it’s the questioning tomboy, and being a southerner that is really the only similarity. Scout is a much happier individual and has much more support than Mick. That said, I first read this when I was about Mick’s age so def. identified with her, though my circumstances were entirely different.
    But the key point, as you say, is Carson McCullers excellent character development. And what is remarkable is that she does it in a very minimalist style – no lengthy descriptions, or elaborate phraseology. She simply states what is there. I think this emphasis on ‘showing’ not ‘telling’, the writers basic rule of thumb, is in part why her style is so successful , and why Harper Lee may have chosen to emulate her.

    Like

    April 18, 2012
  2. You’ve caused me to want to read this book. When you say there is little to no plot, however, I’m left wondering; do these people all want something, and do they ever find it? Or are they just beaten around by McCullers’ plot devices?

    Like

    April 18, 2012
    • I definitely think it’s more of the former. Their loneliness drives them in different ways.

      Like

      April 23, 2012
  3. Great review, I have read one of her books and really enjoyed it, this sounds like a classic, I know its in the library, I must read it, thank you for the reminder. Quite an achievement at that age for sure.

    Like

    April 18, 2012
  4. This book sounds amazing and I love the title. I’ve been hearing a lot about it, but your review is lovely. Thank you for sharing. PS. I’m 24, so at 23, I was doing almost exactly this. 🙂

    Like

    April 18, 2012
  5. I’ll have to add to the To-Read List. Funny enough, I just finished TKAM (finally).

    Like

    April 18, 2012
  6. I was mismanaging my life at 23. I believe Carson McCullers is every bit as talented as she’s been given credit for. I also believe she hit upon a literary “scene” at a time where she would really be cultivated, much like some grunge bands hit the Seattle “scene” at just the right time. Not meant to diminish her at all. Just saying I believe she placed herself in some great places to be nurtured.

    Like

    April 18, 2012
    • No doubt. She had friends that could mentor her.

      Like

      April 23, 2012
  7. Teresa #

    I’m disagreeing with you on this one, Robert. I was horrified at how McCullers treated her characters – as if she schemed about ways to ruin their lives. So many sentence bombs The bit of plot there was seemed over-the-top implausible. That said, I love her way with words.

    Like

    April 18, 2012
    • Interesting. What did you think was implausible?

      Like

      April 23, 2012
  8. Thank you for the introduction. I purchased a copy, and it’s on my to read to do list.

    Like

    April 18, 2012
  9. I love this book! I am excited to find out how it will fare in your ranking.

    Like

    April 18, 2012
    • Was out of town last week, so I didn’t update a lot of stuff. Just updated the rankings and it’s in my top 10!

      Like

      April 23, 2012
  10. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has been one of my summer reads, and I have to admit, I’ve had a hard time getting into it–I’m so close to abandoning it (even at page 216). But now that I’ve stumbled upon your insightful and positive spin on this difficult novel, I’m determined to see it through.

    Like

    July 25, 2012
  11. cathi #

    “One last thought: I’m not sure why, but The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird in some ways.”

    Oh my, I just finished reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and said almost the exact same thing on my blog! I can’t put my finger on it, but I had a Mockingbird feeling the entire time I was reading the book…especially when Mick was thinking or talking. Loved the book, and totally agree about how on a few of their rantings, Dr. Copeland and Jake both sounded as if the author was doing the ranting, not the characters. Other than that…loved it! Loved John Singer, loved him. (Oh no…does that sound like one of the characters? lol)

    Like

    July 1, 2013
  12. I loved everything about this book when I read it this past summer. Like you, I was still learning a lot of basic life lessons at 23 and cannot imagine writing a classic such as this one. How does such a young person have the knowledge of the inner workings of a person’s heart and psyche? I’m still trying to figure how the how and why of behavior in my 60’s!

    Like

    October 14, 2013
  13. Yeah…this has the feel of TKAM, and Mick reminds me of Scout as well, but I wonder how much of that is due to the pictures of McCullers, who looks like she could easily be a grown up Mary Badham (actress that played Scout). This was my first exposure to McCullers…and I found it quite captivating. And yes….sentence bombs!
    My review: http://100greatestnovelsofalltimequest.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-heart-is-lonely-hunter-by-carson.html

    Like

    November 24, 2014

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